Category: News and Events

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, June 19, 2008
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Beginning this month in Christianity Today, Acton is introducing a new advertising campaign that asks readers to look at the economic implications of policy questions put forward by religious leaders. The first ad looks at the top down planning, command-and-control orientation of many humanitarian aid programs and opens with this:

In developing countries, two million children die each year from common diarrhea. Even though a 10¢ dose of oral rehydration therapy can cure it. The remedy is cheap and effective — so why can’t we get it to those poor people?

According to the Religious Left, rich countries just don’t care enough about the poor. Their solution? Government policies that advance a more ‘just distribution’ of wealth. But, will more money get that lifesaving stuff to the mother in Ghana watching her child die?

A special Impact page has been introduced on the Acton site with a deep set of resources for those who want to learn more about faith and policy questions. You can go there to download a copy of the new ad, and access an archive of the previous ads.

The campaign will also include an advertisement for Acton’s new documentary The Birth of Freedom.

The new campaign is being produced by the award-winning team that has partnered with Acton since our first issue advertising rolled out more than two years ago: Copywriter Catherine Snow of Creatif Boutique and Rick Devon and the talented crew at the Grey Matter Group, all of Grand Rapids.

First Maxine Waters suggested that she might just want to nationalize the US oil industry; now Maurice Hinchey of New York is jumping on that bandwagon. And why wouldn’t they? It’s all the rage these days. Just look at Venezuela, which is rapidly emerging as a South American hellhole paradise after Hugo Chavez started nationalizing everything. Why should we be left behind?

It turns out that there are a number of very good reasons to avoid that particular bandwagon. Dr. Jay Richards discussed them last night on KKLA in Los Angeles on the Frank Pastore Show. Listen in and decide for yourself whether the US should nationalize the oil industry.

“ … what is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Acton University, the four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society, opens today in Grand Rapids. This event has grown rapidly since its inception in 2005. This year’s AU, which will integrate course instruction in philosophy, Christian theology and economics, is drawing nearly 400 attendees from 51 countries. The schedule features more than 57 courses and 20 discussion and networking sessions, ranging from small seminars to evening lectures. Check out the course schedule here.

Kresta in the Afternoon, Ave Maria Radio’s flagship national production, will be broadcasting live from AU from Wednesday, June 11 through Friday, June 13. For those of you who cannot pick up the broadcast signal, you can listen live on the Ave Maria site as host Al Kresta interviews AU speakers and attendees.

AU’s expert faculty for 2008 hails from 6 continents. A few featured lecturers and speakers include:

Lord Brian Griffiths, Vice-Chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher. He has served as a lecturer in economics for the London School of Economics at the University of London, the director of the Bank of England and the dean of the business school at City University. He has also written numerous articles and books.

Rev. John Nunes, President of Lutheran World Relief. For over 25 years he has worked as a speaker, musician, writer, youth director, pastor and professor. A research associate for Urban Ministry to Wheat Ridge Ministries and author of Voices from the City. Lutheran World Relief works with partners in 35 countries to help people grow food, improve health, strengthen communities, end conflict and recover from disasters.

Mr. Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor and columnist for Turkish Daily News, Turkey’s foremost English-language daily. His writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, The Weekly Standard and First Things. His focus is the relation between Islam and modernity.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute regularly lectures both in the United States and around the world. His writings have appeared in various journals, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, National Review, The Financial Times, and Crisis.

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, well known economist and Acton Senior Fellow, who is heading up a course series on Marriage and the Family. She has been on the faculty of Yale University and George Mason University, and is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family doesn’t work.

Acton also welcomes its many blogger friends to AU. Over at What Does the Prayer Really Say?, Fr. Z is already blogging about AU and his visit to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog, Tex is promising live blogging from AU. Yeah, Tex!

Check back for updates on the PowerBlog as AU week rolls out.

The BBC is reporting that the Indian state of Maharashtra plans to construct a statue on an artificial island off the coast of Bombay (HT: Zondervan>To the Point).

“The statue will be of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji, considered a hero in Maharashtra for his defiance of Mughal and British forces.”

The officials apparently have in mind a rival for the American Statue of Liberty: “Vishal Dhage, a state government official, said the statue would be about the same height as the Statue of Liberty – which, with plinth included, stands at 305ft (92.69m).”

But where the Statue of Liberty was intended in part as a sign of international friendship and, later on, as a symbol of welcome to immigrants. In 1903, Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” was posted on a bronze plaque standing inside the Statue of Liberty. The poem reads in part:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

That’s a far cry from some of the symbolism behind a modern Indian statue of Shivaji: “King Shivaji is an icon adopted by the militant right-wing Maharashtra group, Shiv Sena, which says more should be done to promote the rights of ‘local’ people in the state rather than ‘outsiders’.”

If the US hasn’t always been as welcoming to distressed and oppressed immigrants, at least since 1903 it has had an ideal to aspire to.

The Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu has some notable comments regarding compassion and consumerism in this BBC article. The Church of England leader is fearful that religious charity and compassion is being crowded out and under utilized. “Human rights without the safeguarding of a God-reference tends to set up rights which trump others’ rights when the mood music changes,” he says.

The Archbishop also criticized calls for removal of religion from the public square, saying it would usher in rampant consumerism. You can read the Archbishop’s address entirety at this blog. Surely, you may find disagreement with some of his words, but also a clear truth in a lot of his critique.

The Anglican leader has also made recent news because of a charitable parachute jump he plans to make in support of British soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan.

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks spoke about “happiness” at an Acton Lecture Series event last week. Dr. Brooks, a professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University and a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, presented evidence which suggests that religion is the greatest factor in general human happiness in the United States. Religion, argues Dr. Brooks, is essential to human flourishing in the United States and public secularism should be strongly guarded against by everyone – religious or not.

He is the author of, most recently, Gross National Happiness (2008) and Who Really Cares? (2006) published by Basic Books.

We were able to interview Dr. Brooks about happiness – watch it now and see what you think!

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Dr. Brooks’ lecture on happiness is also available for your viewing pleasure.

International aid groups have criticized the EU and many of its member states for falling behind their promises to step up foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP by 2010 and 0.7 per cent by 2015.

On the one hand, these groups are right to expose the accounting tricks governments use in order to promote themselves as saviors of Africa. On the other hand, the aid groups should consider very carefully whether their focus on state aid is really the key towards future development in poor countries.

The problem that they indicate is that the EU and its members classify some expenses as aid although these are only indirectly related to development. This includes debt restructuring and payments to cover housing of refugee claimants in Europe.

The aid groups say that in 2007, EU nations spent around €8 billion in such non-aid items. They conclude that “on current trends, the EU will have given €75 billion less between 2005 and 2010 than was promised.”

This kind of creative accounting should not be very surprising since politicians like to claim that they are helping the poorest countries in the world but also know that it is more difficult to tell taxpayers that they have to foot the bill. In such circumstances the most convenient thing to do is to artificially inflate the aid budget with non-aid expenses.

The question remains: Is state-to-state aid the most effective way to promote development? Prof. Philip Booth explained at a recent conference organized by the Acton Institute in Rome that government aid has failed on countless occasions and has even entrenched underdevelopment on some occasions.

Booth made clear that “at the empirical level, there appears to be a negative relationship between aid and growth. This does not imply cause and effect of course, but it should make us pause for thought. After the late 1970s, aid to Africa grew rapidly yet GDP growth collapsed and was close to zero or negative for over a decade from 1984. GDP growth in Africa did not start to pick up again until aid fell in the early-to-mid 1990s. In East Asia, South Asia and the Pacific, one also finds that, as aid reduced, national income increased rapidly.”

It is important to note that Booth criticized government-to-government aid and not charity in general. Whereas transfers between governments have often resulted in rent-seeking and the strengthening of dubious regimes, private initiatives do not suffer from the same problems: “None of the points I have made relate to the exercise of charity. It is important to point out that we should not wait for a just ordering of the world or good governance in recipient countries before supporting charitable relief.”

Aid groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid would do well to turn their focus away from pressuring governments to spend more on aid and instead strengthen their efforts to encourage private initiatives.

Congress is debating a number of measures designed to “rescue” homeowners facing foreclosure as the housing and credit crisis grinds more and more financial and real estate assets to dust. Much of the reporting on the credit crisis, in the tradition of objective journalism, strains to explain the problem objectively, as if what was happening in the markets was somehow an act of nature, something unguided by human action. Thus, people “fell” into the problem as if pulled by a gravitational force:

Congress has been struggling for months to respond to a mortgage crisis that has left more than 1.2 million homes in foreclosure, with an additional 3 million forecast to join them over the next two years. Most involve subprime loans that established terms the borrowers could not afford. As homeowners defaulted and fell into foreclosure, home prices fell more than 10 percent. Many borrowers who are having trouble making payments find that they cannot sell or refinance their homes because they owe their banks more than their homes are worth.

But markets and industries and trade are guided by human beings, who have fairly well known tendencies. In “The Human Foundation of Financial Risk,” Alex J. Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute looks at that depressingly predictable mass hysteria that has propelled one financial bubble after another from the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and beyond. The “great twenty-first century housing and mortage bubble,” he argues, is just the most recent example.

Pollack notes how the mortgage securities market, looking out on a housing expansion that seemed unending, became “enamored” of statistical models of risk crafted by some of the best and brightest on Wall Street. How well did these arcane formulas come to grips with the human factor?, Pollack asks.

Did they pick up the effects of short memories–of the inclination to convince ourselves that we are experiencing “innovation” and “creativity” when all that is happening is a lowering of credit standards by new names–or of what are rightly considered unearned risk premiums being counted as profits and paid out as bonuses? Did the models adequately take into account the cumulative human forces of optimism, gullibility, short-term focus, genuine belief in momentum, extrapolation of so-far-profitable speculations, group psychology, and increasing fraud? Did the models keep up with the fact that as they were running, the behavior was changing? Obviously, they did not.

He reminds us that the reason financial bubbles are so seductive is that, for awhile at least, everyone associated does pretty well. Homeowners were getting more and more house with easier borrowing terms, lenders were generating profits from ever more creative strategies, and Wall Street was packaging and reselling this stuff to investors all over the world. All the while, Congress and the White House were crowing about ever higher levels of home ownership and participation in the American Dream.

Pollack points to the “widespread realization” in early 2007 that a large proportion of subprime mortages and subprime mortgage securities were going to default as the beginning of the end. It was the disillusion that crashed the party. “The end of belief ends the bubble and begins the bust,” Pollack writes. Let the panic begin.

We’re now in the early phase in what is likely to be a massive push in Washington to bring new regulation to the financial services industry and “rescue” more homeowners in an election year (but probably not the homeowners who have been paying their bills). Pollack again sees how this typically plays out:

In the wake of a bust, there is always a predictable series of political activities: first, the search for the guilty; second, the fall of previously esteemed heroes; and third, legislation and increased regulation to ensure that “this will never happen again.” But, with time, it always does happen again. Consider in this context the statement of the comptroller of the currency in 1914 that with the creation of the Federal Reserve, “financial and commercial crises, or panics . . . seem to be mathematically impossible.”

Pollack talks about the “cumulative human forces” behind the bust. From a Christian perspective, these “cumulative” factors would also include a healthy awareness of the reality of sin. There will always be the risk of cheating and greed and theft in financial affairs, personal and corporate. When that risk is inflated with the bubble, then its effects, as we have seen, may be impossible to contain. And no group caught up in the enthusiasm of the housing and mortgage bubble was immune from it — not the homeowner, not the lender, not the securities market.

The new risk we face is that the regulatory cure proposed by Washington will have it’s own illusions of “innovation” and “creativity” — with a naive belief in the power of government to make any more financial crises “impossible.” Federal bailouts for both bankers and borrowers are on the table. Over-reaction and over-regulation is likely to follow. There will be no discussions about the nature of sin in Congressional hearings, but there will be plenty of demons. Mostly, mortgage lenders. As Pollack observes, it’s all too predictable.

My blog post titled “Toward a Theological Ethic for Internet Discourse” has been recognized in the 2008 EO/Wheatstone Academy Symposium. Here is a full list of the top five posts (along wtih an honorable mention):

First Place: Mark Fedeli at A Deo Lumen

Second Place: Jordan J. Ballor at The Acton Institute Power Blog

Third Place: Mark Stanley at Digital Reason

Fourth Place: Jeff Nuding at Dadmanly

Fifth Place: Letitia Wong at Talitha Koum

Honorable Mention: Donnell Duncan at The Cracked Door

This year’s symposium question was: If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media? Be sure to check out all the posts linked above for the responses judged to be the best.

Normally I don’t celebrate coming in second in anything (it’s not “runner-up,” it’s “first loser”), but in this case I’m honored to share the company with these other worthy authors.

Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico was invited to deliver the Krieble Lecture at the 31st Annual Heritage Foundation Resource Bank Meeting on April 24 in Atlanta. His talk ranged widely over “the simple idea of human liberty” and what is required to preserve it.

“People live off of a legacy of the past and all too many people find themselves incapable of defending the heritage of Western civilization,” Rev. Sirico said in his lecture. “Each day people assume that prosperity is just part and parcel of the natural law. Wasn’t it always so?”

The Heritage Foundation’s Annual Resource Bank Meeting gathers more than 500 think tank executives, public interest lawyers, policy experts, and elected officials from around the world to discuss issues, strategies, and methods for advancing free market, limited government public policies. The Resource Bank is also conducted in partnership with groups such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, State Policy Network, and World Taxpayers Associations.

Listen to an audio recording of Rev. Sirico’s Krieble Lecture here.